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With R. Kelly Going To Court Soon, Journalists Recount Covering His Charges For Years

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

R. Kelly, the disgraced former R&B superstar, is in court this week in Brooklyn for the first of two federal trials. And we need to take a moment to state in advance that this is, of course, a story that deals with sexual and physical abuse. Now, Kelly faces multiple charges of sexual abuse against young women and girls as well as trafficking and racketeering. These accusations span decades. We're going to talk to two people who have been following R. Kelly for many years. That's Jim DeRogatis, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the book "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly," and dream hampton, executive producer of the Lifetime television series "Surviving R. Kelly."

Welcome to you both.

JIM DEROGATIS: Thanks, Audie.

DREAM HAMPTON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Jim, I want to start with you because part of what led to the trial, which is getting underway - right? - in this Brooklyn courtroom, started when the Chicago Sun-Times first published allegations that R. Kelly had engaged in sex with minors. Can you talk a little bit about his status at that time in terms of when the allegations began to surface?

DEROGATIS: Well, R. Kelly was the dominant voice in R&B for a generation - 100 million albums sold. He was tried once in 2008 after being indicted in 2002 on very narrow charges. One girl, one 14-year-old on one videotape - she didn't testify, her parents didn't testify, and he was acquitted.

CORNISH: How significant is this moment of him being back in federal court? How is this different from then?

DEROGATIS: Now all of these years later, after 30 years of victimizing young, almost entirely Black women, you know, he is being charged with his entire 30-year career being a criminal enterprise that enabled him to pursue the sexual victimization of so many young women and to threaten, coerce and bribe those who bravely spoke out against him. And beyond this trial, there is a second federal case in the wings waiting to start when he's done in Brooklyn in Chicago.

CORNISH: dream hampton, you've actually spoken with so many of these women who have accused him of these abuses over the years. What did they tell you about being believed and about what it was like to try to kind of go up against R. Kelly?

HAMPTON: Well, many of them weren't old enough. At this point, his predation, as Jim said, has been going on for 30 years. So this round of women, the women that we featured in "Surviving R. Kelly" - they vaguely had an idea that he had been once accused of something and acquitted. They thought that there were false accusations against him. This time around, right before our film was about to come out, it was reported that we had to shut down our first screening. And it was because we received a threat that a gunman was actually in the very small theater with all of the survivors.

CORNISH: You just said a gunman.

HAMPTON: A gunman. There was a gun in the theater. NYPD came, told us this. We immediately shut down the screening. So these threats and coercion and intimidation are and were very real.

CORNISH: Jim, I want to know, then, how R. Kelly's defense team is preparing and planning to present in this trial, which, as you said, is talking not just about the abuse but the idea that Kelly's sort of circle of people were aggressive in shutting down accusers.

DEROGATIS: Well, the defense hasn't laid out the case they're going to make, nor has the federal government. You know, they're using the RICO statutes that they would use to go after a mafia boss or a drug lord to say that Kelly has been the head of this criminal enterprise for 30 years back to the first victims in 1991. They're including in court for the first time charges that he had sexual contact with an illegally married Aaliyah. You know, they have a huge array of 20 Jane Does. It's going to be a fascinating case.

CORNISH: dream hampton, for you, at what point in this very long sort of process and scrutiny of R. Kelly did it seem like the pop star went from untouchable to now not just facing sexual abuse charges but trafficking and racketeering? Is there a moment for you where you feel like there was a shift?

HAMPTON: I believe that when he was acquitted in '08, his behavior kind of escalated. At least that's what we found evidence of in Jim's reporting around 2000, you know, 18. He really was beyond the pale, you know, by the time we did "Surviving R. Kelly" and these women were brave enough to sit before our cameras. I don't think if they'd not done that, if we'd not seen the pain, then we'd be where we were. I didn't expect "Surviving R. Kelly" to be this cultural event for Black folks. I mean, I know that we recently looked at the data with R. Kelly around streaming, and he's right back to where he was, you know, before the docuseries came out - so at about 5 million streams a month. You know, I think that we have a larger cultural problem. It's not just a Black one. But R. Kelly is dear almost exclusively to Black audiences.

CORNISH: Both of you have really had a lot of backlash, right? You've experienced a lot of threatening behavior for investigating this. Has that cooled off? Has that changed with the public perception of R. Kelly?

HAMPTON: I immediately think of the girls and want to center them. I mean, of course, I've been dragged and threatened and had to move also. But that's also not nothing compared to what these women have been through and are still going through. I'm sure that they're still being blackmailed. They still need, like, the resources to begin their healing journey. And, you know, I look forward to him beginning, you know, to make restitution.

CORNISH: What are you going to be listening for over the next couple of weeks?

HAMPTON: You know, I may follow the trial, but what I will be following is social media. I'll be checking in. It's kind of how we all are measuring the pulse in the heartbeat of our communities. And I care deeply about, like, what Black music fans, meaning Black people, think about this.

CORNISH: And, Jim DeRogatis, what are you going to be listening for, looking for over the next couple of weeks as these trials get underway?

DEROGATIS: Well, I think the big question at the moment is how many of the 20 Jane Does are going to wind up telling their story in open court. That's unclear. And it's going to be traumatizing. The depth of these federal charges is so extensive, and the evidence that they're going to present over what's supposedly going to be four weeks is going to be extensive. I'm ready to have my mind blown even after everything I've reported over 20 years.

CORNISH: I want to thank both of you for staying with this case and for being willing to share your reporting with us.

HAMPTON: Thank you, Audie.

DEROGATIS: You know, all credit, really, Audie, to those women who spoke out to dream and me and a handful of others.

HAMPTON: Absolutely.

CORNISH: That was documentarian dream hampton and also journalist Jim DeRogatis. They spoke to us about R. Kelly, who stands trial for accusations of sexual abuse and more. Opening arguments in that trial start tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONE'S "NAKT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.